Okemos lost four of seven starters from last year’s Okemos team that repeated as state champions in girls water polo.
But new coach Matt Latham molded the players who returned into a team that captured its regional title and reached a third straight state championship game before losing 7-5 to Rockford. For that success, he has been selected as the Lansing State Journal coach of the year in girls water polo.
“Fortunately, since I’ve been around the area as the boys coach at Okemos, I knew the standards and knew quite a bit of the team from the Spartan Water Polo Club in the offseason,” he said.
Latham also benefited from the return of sophomore Katie Dudley, who repeated as LSJ player of the year, as well as all-state goalie Nikki Baron.
“Nikki helped me in a many ways,” Latham said. “She made my transition more easy as a captain, and she helped encourage her teammates during practice and during games.
“She also helped change the strategy of the game. We could afford to be aggressive with teams on defense because we knew if we happened to make a mistake, she would be there.”
Latham specifically cited a shot after a breakaway that Baron stopped that kept the state final game against Rockford close.
Earlier in the season, the Chiefs lost 5-4 to the Rams.
“I felt we were right there, and didn’t think we played our best, but I didn’t think Rockford played its best either,” Latham said. “In the big tournament in Chicago, pretty much every game we played against an Illinois team that Rockford also played ended in a similar result.”
So Latham wasn’t surprised to face Rockford again for the state championship.
“I knew that was going to be a battle, and — even though we fell short — I’m proud of everything we accomplished this year,” he said. “I couldn’t have asked for a better group to work with.”